Let’s suppose, as a sort of thought experiment, that we the American citizenry were presented with a judicial candidate — or any public figure with influence on law or policy — who just happened to be active in the Boys Scouts of America the last 20 years. Let’s further suppose this particular figure was not merely a proud former Scout; he credited the organization and its philosophy for providing him his core moral and philosophical compass. As the number of sexual abuse settlements involving the Boy Scouts of America passed the 80,000 mark this fall, ultimately bankrupting the organization, would the general public not pipe up at some point and say to this public figure, “Hey, um, your attitude toward the Scouts, in light of the newly revealed reality, is at the very least awkward. It’s actually pretty fucked up, if we’re being honest. You, or anyone really, who puts such public faith in the philosophy or teachings of something so clearly dysfunctional, should probably not be in a position of authority in our government, much less the high court.”  

Well, I ask you, America: Why does membership in and advocacy for the Catholic Church not prompt a similar rebuke? Today, six of the nine people on the U.S. Supreme Court consider themselves Catholics. All five conservative members on the court — including its newest addition, Trump-favorite Amy Coney Barrett — are quite open about the influence their Catholic faith has had and continues to have on their jurisprudence. In light of the church’s own ongoing sexual abuse scandal, one wonders why the American public tolerates this outward accreditation of something so clearly dysfunctional.

At the very least, we should be talking more about their recusal from cases involving religious faith.

For all the intertwining of Trumpism and evangelical Christianity, no religious force comes close to rivaling Catholicism on today’s high court. The Boston Globe broke the Church’s sexual abuse scandal early in 2001, but its impact has hardly abated, much less blown over. Nearly two decades on, each month brings another report of a U.S. diocese admitting to cover-ups and the shuttling around of offending priests — rather than promptly removing them from contact with children. To date, 21 Catholic dioceses have themselves declared bankruptcy on account of all the financial settlements they’ve been obliged to pay. To be clear, these are just those dioceses that could not afford to compensate all the parishioners who’d been sexually violated by members of its clerical class. There are dozens more that acted as abominably — the priests themselves and their higher-ups in the hierarchy — but could afford to financially compensate its victims.

This is to say, the problems posed by Catholicism remain extraordinarily relevant and widespread. The cynical response to this clearly systemic grotesquery goes right to the top apparently, to the Vatican itself, as November’s allegations against former Archbishop of Washington Theodore McGarrick have proved.  

Vocal defenders of the Catholic faith, who include all these conservative justices and our boot-licking attorney general, Bill Barr, tend to blame the church’s abject moral failings on an infestation of homosexuals in the priesthood, or an evil liberalization of the church stemming from Vatican II reforms in the 1960s. When news of all this abuse first broke, in 2001, these and other Catholic apologists attempted to localize the blame in Boston. When that proved impractical, they blamed the liberalization of America generally. Barr is still beating this drum.

It’s high time that Catholics owned the facts and facets of their own faith, of their church structure and history, of the clerical hierarchy that has contributed to this epidemic of sexual abuse.

As such, America and Americans should also begin to insist that its Catholic public officials — attorneys general, justices serving on any federal court — refrain from using or otherwise citing their Catholic faiths in the execution of their public duties. Would we ask anything less of former Scouts?

No one is arguing that Justice Barrett, for example, renounce her faith. But why, for example, did she and her Catholic colleagues not recuse themselves from the SCOTUS case decided Dec. 4 — the one that barred the Governor of New York from limiting the numbers of people who could gather for religious services during a public health emergency? Even the Pope himself has singled out the religious freedom wing of this court (read: the conservative Catholic wing) as unable to sensibly weigh personal religious choices against the larger public good.

It would also be nice if Judge Barrett, her SCOTUS colleagues and other public servants like them would stop citing their Catholicism as a bedrock of their judicial and personal religious philosophies — at least until such time that their church fully compensates the many thousands of Americans who were sexually abused, not by mere Catholics, but by the church’s corps of holy representatives on Earth. When those ledgers are all square, the religious politicking can resume.

Let’s bring it all back around: In 2020, no one is holding forth in the U.S. public square offering child-rearing and community leadership seminars based on his experience with and institutional belief in the Boys Scouts of America. If this were trotted out in a confirmation hearing, that person’s candidacy would be immediately tainted and withdrawn. We cannot ban Catholics from participating in public life, but it would be nice if they showed a little more shame and humility, especially when it comes to, you know, inserting such an obviously degenerate belief system into our nation’s body of laws.

•••

I have a pretty good record when it comes to getting Letters to the Editor printed in our local paper, The Portland Press-Herald. I used to exercise stewardship over an editorial page, every day. That daily newspaper experience helps temper my genuine but potentially offensive gift for polemic.

But here I wanted to share with you a letter that did not get published last summer, because the letter that provoked my letter so beautifully illustrates the dynamic cited above — namely, the surprisingly tin ear many Catholics have when it comes to their moral credibility within 21st century America culture. The first letter was published by the Press-Herald on August 31, 2019. The one in italics was not published by The PPH. It did not appear anywhere, frankly. Until now.

Stop telling students that there is no God

To the Editor:

I need to alert high school teachers and university professors to please stop doing this.

I heard it again last evening, attending a parish dinner with folks whose children are in college. Their professors said there is no God.

They have no right to say this. If they are familiar with epistemology (how information enters the mind), then they know that the essence of a creator, which has to be beyond all space and time, cannot be known by empiricism, although its existence can be posited through logic, so it is beyond their purview.

I want to tell them to stick to their domain, which is empiricism, at which I’m sure they do well. I myself was happily grounded in all the sciences at the University of Montreal before studying philosophy.

Back a few years ago I taught a course at the University of Maine titled “Topics in Religious Thought” under the aegis of the humanities faculty. It should be reinstated and students referred there when the subject of a creator comes up.

Parents should report delinquent teachers and professors to the proper administrators.

The Rev. Joseph McKenna, retired Roman Catholic priest, Portland

Get your own house in order before you start advising teachers on appropriate institutional behavior

To the Editor,

I’m writing in response to the letter you published Aug. 31 from the Reverend Joseph McKenna, aptly headlined, “Stop telling students there is no God”. In response, I have my own custom headline for this response to the reverend. See above. And by all means, Rev. McKenna,, get your God to lend a hand in that house-ordering, for many Americans (myself included) find it a bit surprising that He (She? They?) saw fit to stand by all those years when your fellow clergy, His corps of holy representatives on Earth, were systematically identifying vulnerable school-age parishioners and curating them for sexual exploitation over the course of years.

Perhaps I should say “decades” or “centuries”. Only a fool (or a politically expedient church apparatchik) would argue that this sort of abuse has not been going on at least since the First Lateran Council of 1123, when the church — already regressive in its attitudes toward human sexuality — added another grotesque layer of baggage by insisting on clerical celibacy. Many Catholic propagandists, yourself included perhaps, attempt to lay this recent plague of faith-enabled indiscretion at the feet of Vatican II, the relaxing of church dogma that took place in the mid-1960s. Poppycock. This sort of thing has been going on for centuries, under the eye of your God presumably, much of it the result of unnaturally denying clergy some form of human sexual expression. Only in the late 20th century did western societies produce enough empirically educated children, who, upon maturation, would be equipped to call out your colleagues for their crimes.

Accordingly, please understand that victims of this abuse (and their fellow citizens) find the Catholic Church’s behavior — not just the abuse but the cover-up, the pay-offs, the stunning lack of moral reflection — extremely troubling. For these aren’t mere Catholics who have been accused/convicted of these felonies. They are uniformly clergy, figures of not insignificant moral authority, within your church hierarchy at least.

And yet you are calling into question the intellectual, moral behavior of others — at the same time you are urging parents to “report delinquent teachers and professors.”

I’ll admit right here that I don’t know the creator to whom you refer, whose existence is, you write, beyond all space & time and indeed cannot be known. Not empirically. But I know this: If there is a God that exists, one a righteous Catholic like yourself would recognize as that creator, He/She/They has an awful lot to answer for. And perhaps until those specific matters are sorted within your own professed faith, you should stop ministering to the intellectual habits of others.

Hal Phillips, New Gloucester